Spain's manager Inaki Saez missed his son's wedding day to try to plot victory for his country in their Euro 2004 playoff against Norway in Valencia's Mestalla stadium. "His best present would be a win,'' said the unrepentant Saez. This was produced, just, with a decider in the last five minutes after Spain had dominated large swathes of the match, but the away goal poached early on by the Norwegians will give them clear hope for the second leg in Oslo on Wednesday.
To score despite the absence of the injured Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and John Carew, banned by his own association for a disciplinary lapse, was high achievement by Norway, but they never looked like winning a match which did not get under way until 10pm local time when, according to Norway's reserve goalkeeper, Frode Olsen, "I am usually in bed''.
Worried about Norway's ability to repeat the win they had achieved over Spain at Euro 2000, Saez stressed: "What I need is goals.'' His team were so starved of them even Northern Ireland had shut them out in a qualifying visit. Of the 20 players who formed Spain's squad, only two, the Valencia midfielder Baraja and the bright new striker from Atletico Madrid, Fernando Torres, had scored in the Spanish league in the past three weeks.
The Real Madrid full-back Michel Saldago said beforehand that he thought two goals would be enough to see Spain through to the finals in Portugal next summer, but presumably he wasn't counting on Norway getting one as well.
Spain's early tactics bordered on the demented as they hurled themselves at Norway's hulking back line. Prominent were the youngsters on whom the nation is pinning its hopes, the 19-year-old Torres and Seville's left-sided midfielder, Reyes, aged 20. But it was an older campaigner, Real Madrid's Raul, the captain, who underlined the accuracy of Norway's pre-match apprehension that he might be the one to undermine them. Operating just behind Torres, he provided the bullets and showed he was not averse to pulling the trigger himself.
With the Basque right-winger Joseba Exteberria also giving Liverpool's John Arne Riise a torrid time, Spain dominated the first dozen minutes, Torres chipping wide after the shaven-headed keeper Espen Johnsen committed himself too early. In the next raid Raul's left-foot shot on the turn was too good for Johnsen but Henning Berg hacked it off the line.
Then, in their first raid, Norway shocked the home crowd by going in front. Tore Andre Flo's attempt to connect with a Riise cross induced such panic that Steffen Iversen was left free to stab in a half volley. It took Spain just eight minutes to produce the equaliser. Reyes, switching wings, was fouled near the right touchline and his inswinging free-kick into a packed goalmouth saw Raul's head get the crucial deflection.
Though Helguera clipped a post on the stroke of half-time, Flo's enterprise on the break occasionally had Spain in trouble and the outstretched boot of Iker Casillas was just enough to baulk Norway and soon after the resumption the Real Madrid keeper pulled off another brilliant stop, this time his fingertips denying Martin Andresen. But the home side dominated things, their theatrics impressing referee Graham Poll enough to gain a string of free-kicks and earn bookings for Berg and Claus Lundekvam.
Spain produced three dozen attempts at goal compared to Norway's four and as they threw on the fresh legs and experience of Valeron and Vicente, the visitors were pushed back into desperate, kick-anywhere defence. The acrobatic Johnsen was Norway's saviour with some extraordinary stops, though he was grateful to Raul, who jinked past Berg only to put an attempted lob for goal straight into his hands.
Riise hacked away from the inrushing Raul when Johnsen spilled one shot and Lundekvam kicked off the line as Norway circled their wagons, only to be pierced in the final minutes as Spain's frenzied attacks brought reward when a low cross rebounded in off Baraja and Berg. So, appropriately, it was a night for Valencian celebration if perhaps muted.
Raul 21, Berg og 85
Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 53,000Reuse content